Is Technology Harming Our Brains?

The hidden costs of distraction by Cathy Jacob at

Photo Credit: Distracted by Devices by PeopleImages

The hidden costs of distraction in a high-tech world.

If you’d rather listen than read, listen to Sound Insight, Season 2, episode 7.

Beginning in 2020, many people worked from home for the first time. Thanks to lock downs, they had increased autonomy over their time at work and they weren’t socializing.

All the conditions seemed ripe for a massive, global “read-fest.” 

But instead, many people I talked to complained that they couldn’t seem to read books anymore. Some were avid readers, who in the past devoured books, like some people consume potato chips. It wasn’t about time. It was about an inability to focus and stay with a book-length piece of content.

What is that?

Is it stress and anxiety? 

Is it a symptom of what Adam Grant called “Languishing?” 

Or is it something else?

Cognitive neuroscientist, Adam Gazzaley and psychologist, Larry Rosen have a theory to explain our struggle to focus. They believe that our access to unlimited information, the expectation that we be available 24/7 and the relentless competition for our attention have all placed excessive demands on our brains.

Distraction has become our new normal.

In their book, The Distracted Mind, Gazzaley and Rosen share these findings about our evolving relationship with our smart phones.

  • Three in four smartphone owners in the U.S. report feeling panicky when they can’t locate their phone.
  • Smartphone users pick up their phones an average of 27 times a day, ranging from 15 to 150 times per day.
  • Three in four smartphone users admit to being within five feet of their phone day and night. While 75 percent of teens and young adults sleep with their phone next to their bed.
  • Nearly eight in ten smartphone users reach for the phone within fifteen minutes of awakening.

These statistics were collected before 2016, so it’s reasonable to assume these behaviors even more pronounced today. 

On February 7, 2023, Microsoft announced the launch of a new version of its search engine, Bing, and its browser, Edge, powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI). This technology promises to act like your personal research assistant, writer and artificial life partner responding to complex questions, writing emails and social media posts for you, putting together your grocery list or planning your vacation itinerary. This is early-stage artificial intelligence available on everyone’s laptop or smart phone. It will add a whole new layer of capability and a whole new way for us to become dependent.

It’s difficult to overhype the changes that AI may bring to the way in which we work and the kind of work we do. Already, writers are being asked to declare if their content was written by a human. (Btw, this content is 100% human-generated.) Teachers are wondering how this capability will affect how their student’s learn, study, and respond to assignments. It upends all earlier notions of what it means to plagiarize and will be exceedingly difficult to monitor and control.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m excited about this new capability and excited to try it out. I’m intrigued by its potential to support my work and make life easier.

At the same time, I am deeply concerned about what we do and do not know about it’s potential impact and how it will change our minds.

I think we all need to buckle up.

Why we are so distractible and why it’s a problem.

According to Gazzaley and Rosen, our brains are vulnerable to distraction due to a mismatch between our unlimited and immediate access to information, communication and entertainment and our limited cognitive control.

“We are like a squirrel with an attention disorder, constantly jumping from tree to tree, sampling a few tasty morsels and leaving many more behind as he jumps to the next tree, and the next and the next. It sounds exhausting, and, as we have shown, it is negatively affecting our safety, relationships, school and job performance, and mental health.”

The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World by Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen

Cognitive control is our ability to enact our goals using three capabilities – attention, working memory and goal management.

Have you ever walked into a room to get something and then forgot why you were there? That’s a common breakdown in cognitive control. Your attention has wandered, and your working memory has lost the plot.

Each of these three abilities has distinct limitations.

The limits to our attention show up in four ways:

  • Our ability to select what we will pay attention to and what we will ignore is vulnerable to distraction.
  • Trying to focus on more than one task at a time takes significant cognitive resources and diminishes our performance.
  • We have difficulty sustaining attention over time, particularly on things that are boring or tedious.
  • There are limits to our processing speed which affect both what we attend to and what we ignore.

Our working memory has limitations on the number of things it can hold in mind at the same time. Further, the quality of information we hold in working memory decays over time and is vulnerable to distraction.

Finally, in the area of goal management, our brain is unable to process two attention-demanding tasks at once. Instead, it engages in rapid task-switching which results in costs to accuracy and speed performance.

“Our cognitive control abilities are far from ideal.  This is especially true when our goals lead us to engage in interference-inducing behaviors—multitasking in distracting settings—which is now commonplace in our high-tech world.”

The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World by Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen

And here’s the kicker.

To supply us with unlimited, so-called free information, social media and other organizations have chosen to pay for it by selling our attention to advertisers.

Being adept at distracting us is essential to their business models.

They have used behavioral science techniques to make their platforms irresistible and addictive.

As a result, we are responding in ways that are unconscious, habitual, and potentially harmful to the functioning of our minds.

Wired for distraction: How our workplaces are making it harder to focus.

In 2013 Thomas Cochrane published an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled Email Is Not Free. In it, he estimated that after reviewing employee use of email in his company and calculating the soft costs, “A “free and frictionless” method of communication had soft costs equivalent to procuring a small company Learjet. Each individual email ate up 95 cents of labor costs.”

His suggested fix, however, was problematic.

He argued for more open concept offices and more digital tools to perform many of the functions then performed by email. The problem with both these recommendations is they add distraction. Most of these new tools and platforms didn’t replace email, they added to it. So now, in addition to the hundreds of emails accumulating in our inboxes, there are texts, chats, social media threads, video calls all vying for our attention and demanding our immediate response.

The distraction of open office configurations has been amplified by the constant distraction of our devices. They beep, ding and vibrate all day, every day. Each eroding our focus, our productivity, and our decision-making. Each intruding into our personal lives. Our multi-channel workplaces are creating multi-channel stress and potentially impacting our mental health.

A study of more than 200 employees at a variety of companies found that intrusions at work accounted for significant incremental strain including exhaustion, physical complaints and anxiety beyond that of workload alone.

Organizations don’t seem to consider the impact of these technologies on either performance or employee stress. Most don’t collect data on their use or impact. They simply acquire them and run the experiment.

In his book, Indistractable, Nir Eyal points out that Slack, the maker of the popular employee messaging platform, has developed policies and practices to reduce potential negative impacts of the platform on their own employees’ performance and stress.

If the makers of these platforms understand the risks of unconscious and unplanned use of their products, shouldn’t we?

For example:

  • Does your company track and measure the impact of these technologies on things like corporate culture, productivity, performance, or employee well-being?
  • Have you and your teammates agreed on the effective and acceptable use of email and other communication channels?
  • Has your team had conversations about what are reasonable response and engagement times on these channels?
  • Have you discussed the contribution of these technologies to a healthy corporate culture? Do they enable effective and respectful communication? Does their use respect employees’ need for focus, productivity, and uninterrupted family time?
  • Do you have transparent and clear agreements on how you will engage with these channels at work?

These are conversations worth having to ensure your organization’s use of technology is not causing harm.

Are we harming our brains?

The short answer is, we don’t know.

The effects of our use of technology on our cognition, our performance and our mental health are still hotly debated topics among the experts.

The problem is, scientists have enough information to be concerned but not enough to be definitive. Many of these technologies have not been around for a long time and large longitudinal studies that could make a definitive connection between cause and effect are not yet available. 

One of the reasons for concern is neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is a term used to describe how the brain changes itself, based on our interactions with our environment.

Last week, I relistened to an episode of the Making Sense podcast with Sam Harris recorded in 2020. It was a conversation with Adam Gazzaley called The Price of Distraction.

Harris, who is also a neuroscientist, talked about the connection between neuroplasticity, our relationship with technology and why we should be concerned.

“You’re making yourself based on what you are doing with your attention and the kinds of habits you are ramifying… you are quite literally sculpting your neurocircuitry… All of these moments matter and they deliver to you, your future self.”

Sam Harris on Episode 226, The Price of Distraction, Making Sense with Sam Harris.

At this point, scientists can only draw correlations that point to the potential impact on our brains and our mental health. And yet, there can be no question that it is changing our behavior.

As Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin said, “We’re all pawns in a grand experiment to be manipulated by digital stimuli to which no one has given explicit consent.”

How will you engage in the grand experiment?

The benefits of advances in information technology on our lives are incalculable. Our dependence on it is real. We can’t put the technology genie back in the bottle and we are all engaged in this global experiment, whether we like it or not. 

We can’t wait for the science to catch up. It is up to each of us to examine the impact of our use of these technologies on our own lives.

It is up to each of us to ask…

  • Are these technologies enriching the quality of my life or eroding it?
  • Are they enhancing my ability to focus and function, or do they leave me in a constant state of distraction?
  • Is my stress and anxiety increasing or decreasing with their use?
  • Are they enhancing my relationships or diminishing them?

If you are like me, the answers are likely yes and yes. They are likely contributing to all the above, both positive and negative.

Only you can decide how you want to engage with the buffet that technology puts before you every day.

And that is how it should be.

At the end of the day, the question you have to ask is, are you using these tools consciously and intentionally or are they using you?

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    Cathy Jacob

    I'm Cathy Jacob. I am a writer, coach and co-founder of Fire Inside Leadership. After two decades of coaching leaders on how to inspire while navigating the challenges of demanding careers and lives, I’ve created this site to share the best of what I’ve learned from my courageous clients and leaders in the fields of psychology, leadership, philosophy and neuroscience on what it takes to live an inspired life.

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